How did you first learn about death? And by learning about death I mean when was the first time that death became more than an abstract to you? Last year, as I interviewed 12 wise Buddhist teachers, this was my first question. It seemed like an appropriate segue into a discussion around death Dhamma and I was sincerely curious. Do some people come with a natural ability to be fully present with death? Two of the 12 did seem to have an innate ability to be with death and dying. With the remaining 10, some had what is considered a traditional introduction:
• Death of a pet during childhood
• Death of an elderly relative during childhood
• Death of a distant friend or family member
• Death that hits closer to home
Some of the group experienced tragic losses at a very young age—a parent or a sibling’s death. Due to their shock and inability to handle the situations, the adults around them did not help them process these deaths. Mary Stancavage, whose father died when she was relatively young, shared that it went like this: her mother said something along the lines of, “Your father died, he is never coming back. Now, eat your dinner.” As you can imagine, Mary would not grapple with her father’s death for many years. Mary is not alone; three others shared stories of how death, experienced when we are young or when we do not have the tools or help to cope, can linger for decades or perhaps even an entire lifetime.
We face grief in whatever shape we are in at the time. That is why I so often use the analogy of running a marathon. To complete a marathon takes training. Part of each of our experiences stems from our mental, emotional, and spiritual state. Even those of us who learned about death more gradually could have used some guidance. If adults were able to discuss death with children, and were able to teach them that everything—plants, pets, wild animals, and human beings—has a lifecycle, then losing your dog as a child would have been easier. Yes, you would still have been sad. But death would not have seemed like some punishment from on high or some random, unfair event.
Mary identifies as being in addiction recovery. This is who she is, and we are fortunate that she openly shares her experiences and brings them to her practice. Mary recalls two distinct situations. When her mother died, Mary was still drinking, and when her brother died, she was sober.
Mary describes how she experienced her mother’s death: “I was on the West Coast. She was on the East Coast. I was in college, living with some roommates. When I got home from school. My roommate told me that my brother had called and said that our mother had died. So that was the message, your brother called and said your mom died. And I said, give me a beer because I was not interested in feeling anything.”
She went on to say: “Right, so there was no investigation of grief, and I would get angry at people who said I’m sorry about your mom.” Her response was to go right to self-medication.
A few years later, Mary’s brother died from cancer. “It was night and day because I was experiencing what was my first real intimacy experience; a willingness to be with the feeling of grief, whatever it was to cry in public at the funeral and wake, and so it was really interesting.” Her ability to be with grief was a welcome experience. This was the experience that she was not ready to have when her mother died.
She continued: “And I also had another interesting experience, the day of my brother’s funeral. He was buried in the morning, and then that evening we were all sitting around. His wife and children and family out back of their house in New Jersey, laughing because we were telling stories. And I remember reflecting, does this mean I’m not sad?, But then I realized, no, it’s just this moment. In this moment, we’re just laughing and then (later) the grief would come, and the joy would go—just the movement of the emotions. And I realized that, you know, the grief is going to come when it comes.”
And it did. Sometimes she would be driving down the road, and all of a sudden she would think of her brother and burst into tears.
For Mary, acknowledging the grief associated with her parents (who predeceased her brother) occurred while working with her therapist and deepening her Buddhist practice. An important lesson that she conveyed to me during our discussion is that just because there is no grieving does not mean there is no grief. The grief is there. Somehow, you have managed to stuff it away. Eventually, it is going to come crawling out of you. Mary observed this as she developed a formal meditation practice—the things that had never tended to surface. It was almost as if past experiences would rise to greet her, saying, hello, I’m here. In this way, she was able to process the grief that she had tried to stuff away.
Your experience with grief is based on your condition. You cannot control when you have to face suffering. You can take control of your preparations. As the Buddha states in more than one passage, practice ardently. The time to do so is now. The way to do so is to practice consistently. Meditate regularly. Study the teachings. Develop spiritual friendships and join a community. Use the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to guide how you live your life. That is how you prepare to meet whatever life and death bring your way.